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Iggy Pop: Bowie’s Main Man

The singer returns to form, with some help from a famous friend

Iggy Pop, David Bowie

(L) Iggy Pop and David Bowie (R) playing together in circa 1970.

Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

IGGY POP IS ALIVE AND WELL – TWO REMARKABLE facts – and living in Greenwich Village. He inhabits a tidy high-rise apartment with his Japanese girlfriend, Suchi, and, between theatrical auditions, roams the city with his portable Brother typewriter in search of lyrical inspiration. The ravages of seventeen years as the ultimate punk are apparent in his face, but his body is as lean and fit as ever. At thirty-seven, he no longer drinks or takes drugs, and he is generally in bed before midnight.

”Yesterday,” he says with boyish enthusiasm, ”I had about a twelve-hour day of things to do. Not big things. I had to vacuum the house, I went to the bank, we had some shopping to do, I had some meetings, things like that. And it turned into a twelve-hour day. And at the end of the day, I felt great. I felt like a lion. ‘Grrr, gimme more. Come on, gimme more!”’

Iggy lights a cigarette and leans back on his living-room floor. This is a new Iggy – Iggy Ascendant. Coauthor of five songs on Tonight, the new album by his old pal David Bowie. Soon to be an artist in his own right – once again – on a Bowie-produced LP, due out next year. ”I think there’s some hope for me in the next couple years,” he says.

Hope is not something many people have held out for Iggy – or James Osterberg, as he’s known offstage – over the years. As the lead singer of the Ann Arbor-based Stooges, he was a scabrous and largely subterranean presence on the late-Sixties rock scene. A buzz-saw guitar band that served as the model for such later punk-rock groups as the Sex Pistols, the Stooges surfaced in 1969 with an eponymously titled debut album studded with such songs as ”No Fun,” ”We Will Fall” and ”I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Along with such similarly uncompromising bands as the MC5, in nearby Detroit, and the Velvet Underground, down in New York, the Stooges defined the dark underbelly of the hippie peace-and-love ethos. And, not surprisingly, Iggy – who was prone to smearing his bare chest with peanut butter or raking it with shards of broken glass and who, more often than not, would leap out from the stage into the midst of his often appalled audiences – was just too much for most people to take. A freak, a pervert, a doomed junkie-idiot. After one more album, 1970’s Fun House, the Stooges collapsed among their own excesses – in Iggy’s case, heroin – and that seemed to be that.

At the time, not many people would have entertained the notion that Jimmy Osterberg, the man behind the raging Iggy Pop rock persona, was a disturbing and visionary artist. One man did, though. David Bowie, whom Iggy calls his ”savior and best friend,” had listed Iggy as his favorite American singer in a British music poll. In 1970, after the Stooges disbanded, Bowie met Iggy for the first time in the legendary back room of Max’s Kansas City in New York. They hit it off, and soon Iggy was signed to MainMan, Bowie’s management company at the time.

With the help of guitarist James Williamson, Iggy concocted a new Stooges lineup and took it to London to record a third album, the incendiary 1973 LP, Raw Power. Iggy produced – which, in commercial terms, at least, was a mistake, and Bowie himself was brought in to mix, and save, the tracks. Raw Power was a critical hit. This was rock & roll stripped of all hippie bullshit, a return to the music’s most primal roots and a prophecy of disquieting things to come. The general public, of course, didn’t want to know.

A falling-out with MainMan left the Stooges without management. They hit the road on their own, but soon Iggy was dabbling with heroin again and before long became deeply addicted. In 1974 he checked himself into a Los Angeles sanitarium, and by 1975 he had finally conquered not only his addiction to heroin, but also his dependence on barbiturates and alcohol. ”It’s not such an impossible thing to do,” he says. ”Not if you really want to, and you really know what you have to lose. Willpower and determination are factors, but the main thing is, you’ve gotta change your friends. Because whether they’re the people who are giving it to you or people who’re wagging their fingers at you for taking it, they expect a certain response from you, and they’ll guide you back into it. So I just changed my environment.”

One friend who stuck by him, though, was Bowie, who visited Iggy in the hospital and offered constant encouragement. Bowie’s fascination with Iggy was understandable: where Bowie was a master manipulator of pop styles but an adherent of none, Iggy was the real thing, a screaming original who seemed able to pluck poetry out of the air. Surely Bowie, a middle-class kid from Brixton, must have been fascinated with Iggy’s background: a Michigan schoolteacher’s son who grew up in a mobile-home trailer park, played in such garage-bred bands as the Iguanas (hence, the Ig) and the Prime Movers, left college after one semester to play drums in Chicago with such black blues demilegends as J.B. Hutto and the Hawks and ended up creating his own notorious niche in the punk pantheon.

Bowie took the rehabilitated Iggy along on his 1976 Station to Station European tour, and in France at a recording facility called Château d’Herouville, they began recording tracks for what would become Iggy’s first solo album, The Idiot. ”The basic idea was to do it without anybody,” says Iggy. ”Just the two of us – although we started fudging, bringing in a bass player here, a drummer there.” Eventually, Bowie and Iggy wound up finishing The Idiot in Berlin, where they lived for three years and where they also wrote, recorded and mixed a follow-up LP, Lust for Life, in a head-spinning thirteen days.

The record-buying public still wasn’t buying Iggy, however, and after a 1977 tour of the States, he and Bowie drifted apart for a while. Iggy churned out four more albums to keep himself going: the sometimes brilliant New Values, the spotty Soldier, the dire Party (”One of my dogs,” says Ig) and, in 1982, an encouraging semireturn to form called Zombie Birdhouse. Then, last year, Bowie had a hit with ”China Girl,” the song he and Iggy originally wrote for The Idiot, and, buoyed by the attendant royalties that started coming in, Iggy got off the road and started getting organized. Bowie – a model of organization himself – continues to be an important influence.

”It’s like, ‘Gee, you’ve got a file cabinet? Okay, I’ve gotta buy a file cabinet,”’ Iggy says with a chortle. ”Or like on a train, when I say some line that he thinks is funny, it’s who can get their notebook out quicker. Then it gets to one-upmanship, like: ‘I’ve got a dictionary, Jim. Have you got yours?’ I mean, it’s like, We’re working here, you know?”

Iggy hopes to go into the studio with Bowie around January, and after that, to tour. Until then, Iggy has plenty to keep him busy. He wrote and recorded the theme song for the recent film Repo Man, and, after seeing Sam Shepard’s play True West in a New York theater some months ago, he’s become intrigued by acting and started going to auditions – ”mainly for characters that’re scary or have a mental problem or are about to kill or be killed.” He keeps in touch with his fifteen-year-old son, Eric, who lives in California, and with his long-suffering parents, whom he and Suchi recently visited.

”They love the new girlfriend and the new lifestyle,” Iggy happily reports. ”They even had me as a houseguest for a couple of weeks.” He cracks up with delight. ”They let me in the house! Gee. I think that’s important.”

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